|Photos from IU Theatre & Drama's Richard III|
1. How is this play related to the theme of good and bad behavior?
The play Richard III covers a fairly appalling series of events, with so many murders that any attempt to summarize the plot turns into a funeral litany. At the same time, it has its source in historical facts, albeit colorfully embroidered ones, including a highly compressed time scheme that contributes to a sense of giddy disorientation. The factual basis makes it hard to dismiss out-of-hand; it demands that we do the difficult work of making sense of actions that seem outside the realm of normal human behavior.
2. Does Richard III have any redeeming characteristics?
He is extraordinarily charismatic and eloquent; in fact, there are groups devoted to rescuing the historical reputation of King Richard III. Those who want to redeem him often consider Shakespeare’s version a smear campaign, but Shakespeare’s Richard is lively and compelling: you want to listen to him speak, and his schemes carry the audience along just as much as they do the characters onstage. Interestingly, unlike many characters we would class as villains, he does not lack empathy – his ability to persuade by playing on other characters’ foibles shows us that he can think himself into their places – but he does present himself as having the worst of all possible lots in life. Given his status, this has more than a bit of absurdity about it; it also limits his suasive force with those (like ordinary citizens, women, and children) who enjoy far lesser status.
3. What's the most challenging aspect of teaching this play or any play in which the main character is a villain?
The challenge is less about understanding the central villain, especially when he is as compelling as Richard, than it is about making sense of the people around him who seem willfully obtuse or incapable of stopping him. When a villain dominates a play, the audience finds a moral locus elsewhere, in another character or characters who seem closer to the audience’s own values. It becomes enormously frustrating to watch our substitutes, who seem to be moral characters, refuse to see or fail to act. The challenge of teaching such works lies both in honoring this impulse – because it is infuriating! – and getting beyond it, to a more productive conversation about the factors that limit our perceptions and choices.
4. Your class this semester is called "Heroes and Villains in the Early Plays of Shakespeare." Which do you find more enjoyable to examine: the villains or the heroes? What is the value in studying such a reprehensible character as Richard III?
My preference is always for a mix of the two: I’m interested in the messy, flawed, complicated muddles to which we cannot find an immediate answer. The most dangerous thing, I think, is when we feel ourselves to be unimplicated by what we read, when it seems either so virtuous or so evil that we consider it completely cut off from our ordinary experiences. Good literature heightens events, of course: it delineates moral character and ethical dilemmas with a sharper outline than we usually see. But it still makes those quandaries recognizable to us, as versions of people we might know or choices we might face. By sharpening our skills of perception and analysis on characters like Richard III, we become more aware of finer shades of meaning in all kinds of moral behaviors – even if Richard’s scheme to kill almost all his family to secure the throne is far away from our own concerns.
For more information on the performances of Richard III, visit http://www.indiana.edu/~thtr/productions/2012/richardiii.shtml.
Themester 2012 Intern